B6B: Split (2016) Retro Review

By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – January 15, 2019)


We look at those that are shattered and different as less than. What if they’re more than us? – Karen Fletcher

*This deep dive comes with the same disclaimer as the Unbreakable piece from last week. If you haven’t seen these films and want to, this is full of spoilers and is in fact an analysis to prepare for Friday’s Glass. It’s to be read as a companion for veterans who either need refresher courses or want to hear my thoughts prior to the third film’s release.*

Unquestionably, the finest portion of either Unbreakable or Split, the first two pieces of M. Night Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy, is the performance of James McAvoy. A full 16 years after the original film, Shyamalan finally got to its sequel, and in his own fashion, he was able to keep the audience in the dark until the mid-credits scene that features David Dunn in the diner.

Rewatching Split as part of the Eastrail trilogy of reviews here at the Big 6 Blog enabled me to go back with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what I was watching, and not worry about the twist. Watching this particular film a second time was a treat, because as effective a suspense thriller, at times bordering on horror, as it is, the second viewing was more about picking up the subtle clues and trying to understand who Kevin Wendell Crumb actually is as a character.

The movie spends its time introducing us to several of the identities within Crumb’s body, which we find out in Shyamalan’s universe involves not multiple personalities, but actual separate entities all contained within one construct. The one in control at any given time is said to be “in the light,” and there are conflicts between the various individuals, much of it centering around the belief in or disbelief in…a malevolent, evolved being named The Beast.

Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s psychologist, believes in a large portion of her patient’s abilities, but stops short of buying into the monster himself. She eventually comes around, but only because The Beast squeezes her to death moments after she used her final moments of life to give Casey Cooke a chance to quell the monster by uttering “Kevin Wendell Crumb,” which shakes him to his core as it’s what his intensely abusive mother used to say before she punished him. We also find out Dennis was a reaction to his mom’s abuse when he created messes. The way to avoid her wrath was to keep everything spotless, which then led to his nearly obsessive compulsive neatness, including the lair’s bathrooms and the girls’ clothing.

Shyamalan’s universe, which once housed just David Dunn and Mr. Glass, now also brings us The Horde, or the collection of whatever Kevin Crumb’s brain has enabled him to become. It should stand to reason that in a world of a superhero and a super villain, there would be more than one, so nothing about Kevin’s existence fails the smell test. In fact, it makes all the sense in the world, and thus the big reveal gives a positive cold chill for fans of Unbreakable. This time, M. Night Shyamalan had a plan, and this time, we’re all in with him.

One more point about the 2000 movie I failed to make last week is that the murderer Dunn took down as his first true act as a superhero seemed a little strong himself. He pulled that door open, he fought Dunn’s choke hold for a while, and he seemed larger than others. Because of his jumpsuit, for some reason he reminds me of Victor Zsasz, although not entirely. There was just something about the first Dunn triumph that made me think, okay this was a MINOR villain, but greater than the other people in his visions.

McAvoy wasn’t just good, he was unbelievable in Split. It takes skill to play that many characters with enough of a tie where you can see pieces of each occasionally bleeding across the various voices and mannerisms. He was so effective that it almost felt “too good,” in that it was unsettling. This universe is by no means the easiest to watch, as it’s a highly adult deconstruction of the basic superhero motif and theme.

Also, in similar fashion to Unbreakable, which focused on less than half a dozen characters, if you see McAvoy as just one, Split does exactly the same thing. There’s Kevin Wendell Crumb, his three victims Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who has no credited last name. Of that trio, Casey is the one we’re supposed to pay attention to from the beginning, although Claire proves herself to be intelligent and resourceful.

At least…until she has her insides eaten by The Beast. But who can blame her for that?

Shyamalan tells Kevin’s story as one of pain and abuse and suffering that eventually led to other identities emerging to protect him, then evolving into something much different. The Beast, as much a monster as it is, also is still human enough to have a warped moral code. His beliefs, which are shared in some ways by Dennis and Patricia (and perhaps others we never met), hinge on the idea that the only way to achieve true greatness and maximize potential is through pain. All those who have had it easy are impure and their time has come to an end. The reason Claire and Marcia are taken is for that reason, that they hadn’t faced anything worthy of being declared hardship.

What saves Casey Cooke are the scars across her stomach and shoulders that indicate either vile, heinous abuse from Uncle John (Brad William Henke) or self-injurious behavior stemming from John’s repulsive acts. Once The Beast sees those marks, he knows she’s different, because she went through something akin to what Kevin went through. “Your heart is pure. Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.” He leaves her and eventually she’s discovered and is saved from the lair underneath the zoo maintenance area.

Casey doesn’t shoot Uncle John, but she isn’t afraid to try to kill The Beast in order to save her own life. However, as we watch Izzie Leigh Coffey portray the five year-old Casey, her eyes and the regeneration or the color that flashes when she has the shotgun in her hand may give away that she could be a bigger part of the Shyamalan universe herself. That’s merely a theory, but again, this is a world where it’s clear there are other super beings out there. Why would there just be three? Claire survived in an almost impossible situation, somewhat by luck, but the way she acted and reacted at varying times may provide some evidence there’s something else here.

Either that or she’s tough as nails after being sexually abused by her uncle, which unfortunately enough, isn’t a surprise when it becomes part of the story in the woods. There was no reason for us to know Uncle John at all in those flashbacks if he wasn’t going to alter her life, and in Shyamalan’s universe, that wasn’t going to be a positive thing. It certainly wasn’t. It was despicable and tough to watch, but created immediate lasting sympathy for Casey Cooke…and also, by proxy, FOR KEVIN!

In addition to Kevin, the three girls, and Uncle John, we have Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who basically exists in many cases to be our conduit to Shyamalan’s thinking. Her dialogue, her Skype interview, her chats with Barry and Dennis and her colleague are the way we begin to comprehend what’s actually taking place. She’s the answer key to the test, so to speak, and Buckley is solid in the role.

Just as with Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan has no problems making portions of these films vastly uncomfortable or off kilter by design. While it didn’t amount to anything particularly substantial, the fact that the three girls all had to remove clothing, leading to various stages of undress leads to a conclusion of untoward lust within Dennis. We don’t see any sexual assault, nothing remotely close in fact, with the exception of Marcia being taken out of the room early in the movie, but even that wasn’t what it appeared. It wasn’t about anything happening. It was that they were in that state that made it a little tougher to watch, that made it grittier, and that made it much more “real” and “this isn’t okay.” This is not supposed to be a happy place, replicating Unbreakable, which presented a palpably fractured, bleak setting.

I talked about the colors in the 2000 movie, and here, when The Beast arrived, the dull greys and browns of the lair became tinged in a yellow, sometimes with shades of orange peeking through, that made the hallways far more sinister looking, and if you’ve seen the Glass trailers, you notice McAvoy wearing yellow in several scenes. Also, we’re at a zoo, with the focus on the beasts themselves, specifically lions and tigers, both of which we see either on statues or as actual animals. You might think I’m reaching. I might think I’m reaching, but the colors continue to stand out in crucial sequences of these two movies.

The nature of the three girls trying to escape is handled well and we’re rooting for them to get out. None of the trio are unlikable, and each is attempting to help the other two, even if there are disagreements on methodology. But, we’re not watching an escape movie, even though that’s what Shyamalan wants us to think. He actually shows up in this one as well, playing the tech geek Karen uses to check camera footage outside her building. He’s the one that got the wings from Hooters.

Had I known before I initially watched Split what I was actually seeing, it would have harmed the effect. The first time through, you need to be in the dark until the diner scene. The second watch, however, was much easier and much smoother because Shyamalan had no twist to pull on me. There was no trick. There was just the movie and what it informs upon the newest member of the Eastrail 177 universe, Kevin Wendell Crumb.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is the superpower (or the curse) that leads to Barry’s dominance early through the 23 identities sitting in chairs inside Kevin’s mind, all waiting for a chance to be in “the light” and controlling the body. His physiology and various characteristics change with the identities, with some being strong, some being brilliant, some being artistic, one being a nine year-old boy that loves Kanye West, one being a woman, one being diabetic, and so on and so forth. “In the sun we shall find our purpose.” Or is it, “In the Son we shall find our purpose?” Patricia mentions she read that line on a card at the supermarket. Sun would be apt for the light, but Son would make sense for purpose from a spiritual standpoint as well.

David Dunn, Elijah Price, Kevin Wendell Crumb… and now Glass awaits us later this week. I’m a fan of these two movies, and my fingers are crossed that the third delivers. While neither of the existing efforts are A+ level, they’re watchable, well-crafted, clever stories that build anticipation for what might be to come. The crossover effect in Split’s final scene in the diner was the best Shyamalan trick since The Sixth Sense, or it is for those that enjoyed Unbreakable. I classify myself firmly in that group. Using James Newton Howard’s original theme is a nice touch, and I will never NOT want to hear that score – as it’s one of my all-time favorites, particularly the main theme we hear in the final seconds of Split.

And I’m looking forward to hearing it again this weekend in Glass. I’m also looking forward to reviewing the movie, which I will do in spoiler-free form prior to the movie’s official release, to be followed by an analysis piece in coming weeks that will be similar to these two.

One final note about Split. Recall Unbreakable making only a third of the money generated by The Sixth Sense one year prior. It was a financial disappointment to say the least. Well, Split made over 275 million dollars on a budget of… NINE MILLION. So yeah, this one worked. And McAvoy was outstanding on a whole different plane as a performer. Anya Taylor-Joy was excellent as well, but this was James’ movie and he killed it from start to finish. It’s a remarkably strong acting job from him.

Split is good. Unbreakable is good. Glass is…

…we’ll find out when the next issue of the comic comes out on Friday.

“This is like that crazy guy in the wheelchair they put away 15 years ago. And they gave him a funny name too. What was it?” … @JMartZone

 

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